Facing opposition from its Back Bay neighbors, a medical marijuana nonprofit that wants to open a dispensary on Newbury Street has promised to not convert the facility into a recreational pot shop.
The pledge by the chief executive of Compassionate Organics, Geoffrey Reilinger, comes just one week after the influential Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) voted to oppose a medical cannabis dispensary at 331 Newbury St.
Members of the neighborhood group said they were worried that the dispensary would start selling marijuana to large crowds, instead of just registered patients, once recreational sales are permitted next summer. Neighbors also cited concerns about increased traffic, public smoking, the dispensary’s location near residences on Commonwealth Avenue, and its proposed 8 p.m. closing time.
“I don’t think we’re squeamish about marijuana — we’re squeamish about where all this is going with recreational,’ said Vicki Smith, NABB’s chairwoman. “And we heard loudly and quickly from a lot of people who are direct abutters and are very concerned about the dispensary’s impact on a residential neighborhood.”
Under the new marijuana law passed this summer, medical dispensaries can apply to the state for permission to convert from a nonprofit into a for-profit recreational shop. But the details of that process — including how much input municipalities and neighbors will have — haven’t been established.
Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Compassionate Organics who previously directed communications for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, noted that the area of Newbury Street around the proposed location has for years been a home to “alternative” retailers. Close by are Newbury Comics, Condom World, the Hempest, and Sweet-N-Nasty, a bakery that makes treats with silly X-rated decorations — not to mention the late-night bar scene steps away on Boylston Street.
In any case, Joyce said, the dispensary would be a serious medical operation serving patients, not
partygoers. Medical dispensaries elsewhere in the state have been good neighbors, she argued, and the patients who frequent them know it’s illegal to consume their marijuana outdoors in public.
“The natural inclination is to be concerned about things that are new,” Joyce said, “but the fear associated with these is unfounded.”
Without the support of the neighborhood group, Compassionate Organics will likely have a difficult time persuading Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeals to sign off on the project at a hearing next month.
Reilinger is the son of Elizabeth Reilinger, who was a longtime chairwoman of the Boston School Committee under Menino and is listed as vice president and board member of Compassionate Organics. The company’s team also recruited two other well-known Boston figures, hiring former city councilor Mike Ross as its attorney and former Boston Police Department superintendent-in-chief Daniel Linskey to handle security.
Compassionate Organics is hoping the medical-only promise — as well as an offer to hire a police officer to patrol the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, where neighbors feared patients might light up after picking up their medicine — will prompt members of the neighborhood group to change their minds.
Even if it doesn’t, Joyce said, Compassionate Organics has support from others in the Back Bay.
“I believe the vast majority of the community would like to see this,” she said, “and we’re continuing to cultivate that support and educate people about medical marijuana.”
Smith said it would be up to her members to decide whether the concessions are enough for NABB to reverse its decision. She acknowledged the association’s land-use committee had voted in favor of the dispensary before its overall membership rejected it.
Other nearby residents opposed to the proposal have banded together and hired former city council president and prominent attorney Larry DiCara to fight Compassionate Organics.
DiCara said he wasn’t sure the company’s promise to remain a medical-only dispensary would placate his clients, whom he declined to name. He said residents worry the dispensary would represent a step backwards for the area.
“That part of Newbury Street, 40 or 50 years ago was not a nice part of town,” DiCara said, explaining that the area used to have more street crime.
“They like things the way they are now,” DiCara said, describing his clients’ stance. “They enjoy it being a traditional retail environment... and there’s always concerns about the unknown.”
The Boston City Council in June granted Compassionate Organics a so-called “letter of non-opposition,” a preliminary step needed to open a dispensary.
Compassionate Organics — which recently hired former city councilor Mike Ross as its attorney and former Boston Police Department superintendent-in-chief Daniel Linskey to handle security — had previously tried to open a location in Brighton. That effort failed when the city last year instead granted approval to a rival medical marijuana group that had retained a friend and former political consultant of Allston-Brighton Councilor Mark Ciommo .